Howdy Again

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(Pictured: Buffalo Bob, Howdy Doody, and Clarabell.)

In 1969, Steve Dworkin, a staffer at the Jerry Kasenetz/Jeff Katz bubblegum factory Super K Productions wrote a song called “Bring Back Howdy Doody.” The Howdy Doody kids’ show, starring Buffalo Bob Smith, his puppet friend Howdy, Clarabell the Clown, and other characters, had been off the air for nine years, and Dworkin says he wrote it as a joke. Then Dworkin and his songwriting partner Gary Willett got a directive to record as many songs as possible in one day for their bosses to use as a tax write-off. They never expected “Bring Back Howdy Doody” would see daylight—“had we known the track was going to be released we would have made it a lot better!” It ended up as the flipside of the 1910 Fruitgum Company’s “Indian Giver” under the title “Pow Wow,” but it was pressed backwards, a trick Kasenetz and Katz used to make sure radio stations played the plug side only. The songwriting credit went not to Dworkin and Willett but to Kasenetz, Katz, and Fruitgum Company lead singer Mark Gutkowski. Later, Kasenetz and Katz had the song recut (forwards this time) as “Bring Back Howdy Doody” and released it under the name of the Flying Giraffe. It went nowhere, but Dworkin sent a copy to Buffalo Bob Smith and got a friendly letter in return. “Soon after,” Dworkin says, “he started touring colleges.”

Whether “Bring Back Howdy Doody” actually caused Smith’s comeback is arguable. What is not arguable is that by 1970, many of the kids who had grown up on Howdy Doody, which had aired from 1947 to 1960, were in their late teens and 20s. So in that year producer Burt Dubrow packaged Buffalo Bob and Howdy for a touring show. It was sufficiently popular to result in a live recording, Buffalo Bob Smith Live at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East. (Hand to god, I am not making that up.) The May 29, 1971, edition of Billboard described the album as an “outstanding live performance” of familiar show material. It also “stands out with [Bob’s] unique performance of ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head’.” The tour traded on nostalgia, but new material like “Raindrops” nodded to Buffalo Bob’s older, more sophisticated audiences. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), one popular joke in the live show involved Buffalo Bob finding a package of rolling papers that belonged to Clarabell. Billboard goes on to say that the album is “sure to prove a top best seller.” It did not, however—Billboard was famous for raving like that about almost everything.

(Just once I’d like to read a capsule review that says “this record blows and should be shot immediately into the sun.”)

But in May 1971, there was a Howdy Doody tribute better fitted to Top 40 radio. “Do You Know What Time It Is” by the P-Nut Gallery got its own breathless capsule review in the May 22, 1971, Billboard: “This clever bubblegum item has all the potential to break through and go all the way.” That same week, WLS in Chicago listed it as “hitbound” (along with “Get It On” by Chase, “It’s Too Late” by Carole King, and “Don’t Pull Your Love” by Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds). By the week of June 14, it was in the Top 10 at WLS, eventually making #8. It also made the Top 10 in Milwaukee, Kansas City, and a handful of smaller cities. By mid-July, it made #62 in Billboard and #54 in Cash Box.

“Do You Know What Time It Is” is enthusiastically sung, maybe by one of its two writers, Bobby Flax and Lanny Lambert, but maybe not. It was probably inevitable that it would include a chorus of shouting children. But it’s pure novelty and should be judged as such, and there must have been listeners in the summer of 1971 who punched the dial hard when it came on. Yet as the very existence of this website indicates, nostalgia can make us behave in strange ways.

Flax and Lambert would return to the chart a few months after “Do You Know What Time It Is” with a record that has endured a little better: they wrote and produced “White Lies, Blue Eyes” by Bullet.

Buffalo Bob would revive Howdy Doody briefly in the late 70s. He did some acting, owned some radio stations, and died in 1988 1998 at age 80. Today, Howdy Doody himself is a kind of Jungian archetype: one of those things millions of people know without actually knowing why they know it.

There’s a good story about the role “Do You Know What Time It Is” played in one fan’s life here.

6 thoughts on “Howdy Again

  1. Wesley

    I remember Elton John saying somewhere (can’t remember unfortunately) that he used to buy new records recommended by Billboard and wondering what the reviewer heard in some of them to make such enthusiastic claims. And Clive Davis wrote in Clive: Inside the Record Business that he personally called Billboard’s offices to get “Me and Bobby McGee” removed from the “Also Possible” review section because he felt that was a slight to what he felt was an instant classic. (Billboard did remove that mention, probably to appease Davis in his position at head of CBS Records at the time.)

    What this all is leading to, JB, is an idea for future blogs of going back to Billboard’s reviews of songs from 1965-1972 when it predicted what songs it reviewed would make the top 20, the top 60 and the top 100 on the pop chart. Could be fun profiling those anticipated to be top 20 smashes that fell short of the mark as well as note the “also possibles” that became huge hits.

    Finally, White Lies, Blue Eyes is simply one of the best songs of 1971 and definitely should’ve peaked higher than #28.

  2. porky

    I was (am) a huge bubblegum fan, “Indian Giver” being a record I had as a 9 year-old. Sure, I listened to the B-side and thought, “Crazy.”

    Fast forward to the early 80’s when I am no longer 9 years-old but in my 20’s working at a radio station and beginning to look for records at thrift stores and junk shops. I find a copy of the Flying Giraffe 45 and play it. Wow, another Howdy Doody related record like P-nut Gallery.

    Some time later it dawns on me that the turntables at the radio station can be “disabled” and be spun backward so I bring in “Revolution #9” and my “Indian Giver” 45 to decipher the gibberish. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard “Bring Back Howdy Doody” as the mysterious “Pow Wow.”

    Count me as another fan of “White Lies, Blue Eyes.” That two-note piano lick!

  3. John Gallagher

    WJET here in Erie, PA also played the P-Nut Gallery though I never bought the 45.

    Bob Smith actually passed away in 1998, not 88. I remember interviewing him on-air at a country station I worked at in 1996. So down to earth and a funny guy. He performed at a local community fest that year. I have a photo taken with him in the station lobby with his daughter in the background. She drove him.

  4. mikehagerty

    I had just been looking at the January 17, 1970 issue of Billboard this past weekend—trying to put an aircheck I was listening to into context. The “Spotlight Singles” page was a great example of just how out of touch Billboard was at the time.

    There were no Top 20 spotlights (songs predicted to reach the top 20 of the Hot 100).

    Santana’s “Evil Ways” was predicted to make the Top 60 (it peaked at #9), and in the “Special Merit Spotlight” (which they suggested were songs that might make the Hot 100—Neil Diamond’s “Shilo” (which managed #24 in both its 1968 and 1970 chart runs).

    Gotta remember, though—Billboard was not intended to be a radio programming guide. They didn’t disabuse you of that notion—all those radio station subscriptions added up—but Billboard existed, at that point in its history—to sell advertising aimed at rack-jobbers and record stores. The singles spotlight was a pump-primer…something intended to spur early stock for as many records as possible so Billboard could then point to early wholesale action based off its listing and suggest how much better that record would do with, oh say, a full-page ad every week for eight weeks.

  5. Brian L Rostron

    Early seasons of “Happy Days” repeatedly mention Richie’s resemblance to Howdy Doody, and MeTV recently aired the early episode about his entering a lookalike contest and meeting Smith and Clarabell. For some reason, Cozi TV sometimes plays episodes of the somewhat resulting “New Howdy Doody Show.”

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